I recently visited my husband’s side of the family, and while there I had an interesting discussion with a teenage family friend. We were discussing feminism, etc, and I said something that disagreed with the Catholic Church. He was surprised, and asked how I could hold that position while still being Catholic. I told him discreetly that we don’t go to church anymore, etc, and he told me that while he believes in God, he’s basically a deist and definitely not Catholic.
The next day, I saw him at mass. I was there because attending mass with my husband’s family while visiting is a gesture of respect. Why he was there I’m not certain, except that his family may not know of his differences or may require him to attend with them anyway, since he’s still in high school. The moment when I glanced across the church and saw him standing there, much to my surprise, did make me think, though. How many people in the pew are like us, with questions or complete disbelief and yet still standing there?
For a long time I have resisted the idea that there are people in the pews who don’t believe, or at least, resisted the idea that there are many of them. I suppose when I first heard the idea put forward I found it insulting. For the first two decades of my life, after all, I believed with every fiber in my being. That someone could infer that there were large numbers of people in the pews who didn’t really believe the pastor’s words seemed, well, disrespectful.
Now, though, I’m not so sure.
A friend with a similar upbringing to mine recently told me that going to church makes her feel dead inside. She said she sits in the pew and listens to the pastor preaching what she already knows, and she absolutely hates it. She can almost feel her heart withering. And then she said the following:
And I sit there and look around, and I wonder, what are all these people getting that I’m not? Am I the only one out of everyone sitting here who feels this way?
Again, that made me think.
I still think it’s unfair to argue that most or half or even a significant minority of people in the pews disbelieve or have questions. I don’t like to try to read people’s minds like that. I was perfectly sincere, and I’m sure most of those in the pews are as well. I am ready, though, to admit that there are more in the pews who disbelieve or live with serious doubts than any pastor would feel comfortable admitting. And there they sit, in the pew, regardless.